U.S. Sails Warship Close to Chinese-Claimed Reef: WSJ

  • Patrol is first freedom of navigation operation under Trump
  • Pentagon declines to confirm details of sail-by operation

Why China's Maritime Disputes Could Lead to War

The U.S. has conducted its first freedom of navigation operation in the disputed South China Sea under President Donald Trump, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The patrol was made Wednesday by the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey near Mischief Reef, a feature in the Spratly islands where China has built an artificial outpost equipped with an airfield, the newspaper reported, citing unidentified officials. The move was aimed at signaling to China that the U.S. intends to keep critical sea lanes open, according to the report.

“U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” Defense Department spokesman Jamie Davis said in a statement, declining to confirm the Wall Street Journal report. The U.S. will continue its regular freedom of navigation operations, and summaries of these would be released in its annual report “and not sooner,” according to the statement.

The sail-by comes after media reports that the Trump administration, keen to get China’s help containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, had declined to conduct freedom of navigation operations despite requests by U.S. Pacific Command. China has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the South China Sea and increased its military presence there in recent years.

Appear Responsive

“It appears that U.S. decision makers sought to be responsive to calls for continued FON operations following reports that none had been conducted this year,” Graham Webster, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s China Center, wrote in an email. “By saying the government will not make further operations public before the annual report, they may seek to avoid the persistent public calls for public FON operations.”

The U.S. carries out freedom of navigation operations by sending navy ships and aircraft near disputed waters to demonstrate the right to fly and sail through what it considers to be international waters and airspace. Such operations need to be within 12 nautical miles of an island or territory to constitute a challenge under international law.

China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, an international waterway that hosts more than $5 trillion of trade a year, clash with five others including Vietnam and the Philippines. An international tribunal last year ruled China’s claims have no legal standing. China says the tribunal has no jurisdiction.

President Xi Jinping, as Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army, inspected the PLA Navy on May 24, where he stressed its “significant role in the national security and development strategy," according to state-run news agency Xinhua. He urged the sailors to step up efforts to "build a strong, modern naval force.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is due to speak to Asian defense ministers next month at a security forum in Singapore.

“We have a comprehensive Freedom of Navigation Operations program that seeks to challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” the Defense Department said in its statement.

— With assistance by Ting Shi

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